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Yushu, Qinghai Province:Tibetan Minority 2


13:41, August 01, 2011

In this episode of Travelogue, come to Yushu for a closer look at the Tibetans of Qinghai and their horse-racing festival. You gotta see it to believe it.

Variety of its landscape and diversity of its people, welcome to Travelogue’s ethnic minority again. If you look at the sight behind me, you’ll see this multicolored rainbow, prayer flags dancing in the wind. In my opinion, this is the most spectacular sight you can find anywhere. If you are familiar with this, you’ll know this is one of the centers of Tibetan culture, that’s Yushu in Qinghai Province. It is here you will experience the nomadic lifestyle of the Tibetans, rushing through the plateau on their horses, charging at the emptiness. Also, we’ll hear their beautiful song and dance. Welcome to Travelogue, I’m Yin, and get ready for an unforgettable experience.

Qinghai Province is a land of marvel and mystery. In its remotest areas, you can find some of the most culturally rich regions where Tibetans live.

Our journey starts in the provincial capital Xining, from where we’ll head to Yushu, to celebrate the famed horse-racing festival. The Qinghai Tibet Plateau is home to communities of nomadic Tibetans, with their long history, rich culture, and religious devotion.

Despite living in a harsh, high-altitude environment, Tibetans are famous for their sprightly nature and vivacious culture. The spirit of the Kangba Tibetans permeates their energetic songs, bold dances, strikingly bright faces, and wild horse-races. The most typical image of these people is that of men and women dressed in bold colours, racing across the grassland on horseback.

The road from Xining to Yushu is 800 km long, taking us past the famous Qinghai Lake, which Qinghai Province is named after. It’s the largest saltwater lake in China, whose scenery is so beautiful that people believe it’s blessed by Heaven. If the season’s right, you can get a glimpse of endless rows of race flowers here.

Qinghai Lake is known variously as the “green lake”, “blue sea,” and “fairyland” – names that describe its changing shades at different times of the day, in different seasons, and when viewed from different angles.

The locals call the lake their mother lake, and they hold ceremonies here to make sacrifices to the Lake God.

Tibetans are devoutly religious. Tibetan Buddhism originated in India and came to the area in the 7th century. The indigenous religion was Bon, which involved the worship of divinities and spirits, along with the mountains, forests and bodies of water, like Qinghai Lake.

The path to Yushu leads further on, to Tibet. The history of the road is intertwined with the story of the beautiful Tang Dynasty princess, Wencheng, who traveled along this route to marry the Tibetan King, Songsan Gambo.

Here, the natural environment provides a habitat for some rare animals, like the endangered Tibetan antelope. In a sense, the Tibetan antelope, though rarely seen, is a symbol of the wildlife on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, with its strength of body, grace, and free spirit.

We just busted a tire here. We crossed over a rock, and flew over the rock. All we have to do is a quick changeup, we got a spare in the back, and soon we’ll be out of this emptiness.

A journey like ours is hard work. While the high altitude makes us dizzy and short of breath, the tough roads take their toll on our vehicle.

Minor setback, we’re on our way.

On this unending grassland, the sides of the road are dotted with lakes, big and small.

Yushu is sometimes called "The Source of Rivers," – namely the Yellow River, the Yangzte, and the Lancang.

Since ancient times, the Yellow River has nurtured Chinese civilization. The source of the Yellow River is 4,600 meters above sea level, so a journey there is a real challenge. Even so, you may be surprised by what you find there.

See that blue behind me, it’s called Lake Elin and it’s particularly significant because it’s. Let me show you in this picture. If this were lake Elin, the waters of the Yellow River flow into it and then unify here, and flow out as one river. It’s called the Yellow River, which is known as the mother river of Chinese Civilization.

The source of the Yellow River is surprisingly peaceful and clear. Later its waters are notably wild and turbulent. But their origin could not be clearer or calmer.

The Yellow River is the second longest river in China. From Qinghai, it passes through nine provinces and autonomous regions on its way to the Bohai Sea on the East coast. It gets its colour from the yellow clay dust that is blown across China – it’s a sediment that permeates China’s long history.

Princess Wencheng, having set out for Tibet from Chang’an, the Tang Dynasty capital, was met by her betrothed, the Tibetan king, at the source of the Yellow River.

Next to me now is the yellow River itself, the origin. Never expected it to be so clear, and so blue. AS a symbol of respect and honor to the yellow river, the Tibetans place one of these, the hada.

The Yellow River is the spiritual home of the Chinese people. Its source is protected by typical Tibetan Yak horns.

Near the path are some of the prayer wheels that line the mountains. The multi-coloured flags have Buddhist blessings written on them, designed to spread well-being to the surrounding areas. Each time the wind blows, it’s said, it’s like reading the scriptures.

Tibetans place the flags here to commemorate Princess Wencheng. On her journey to Tibet, she brought volumes of Buddhist sutras with her. She also brought the latest farming and industrial techniques from the Tang Dynasty. Having settled in, she taught the Tibetan people how to grow crops and vegetables, grind wheat and make wine. In this way she was instrumental in improving the lives of many Tibetans.

Later on, when another Tang Dynasty Princess – Jincheng – passed by on her way to marry another Tibetan king, she ordered her craftsmen to build a Temple in honour of Princess Wencheng.

People in Tibet are grateful for what Princess Wencheng did for them. Still today, they come to pray and ask for her blessing. In their hearts, Princess Wencheng is like a flame that burns, quiet but strong.

Yushu has its very own place of mystery – Leba Valley. Here, carved on the mountains and rocks, is the six-word mantra of Tibetan Buddhism. “Om Mani Pedme Hum,” it reads. The entire teachings of the Buddha are contained in this mantra: not surprisingly it can’t really be translated into a simple phrase. Repeating this mantra is believed to bring merit, and ease the negative karma; meditating upon it is believed to purify the mind and body

Tibetan Buddhism is associated with one of the world’s most distinctive spiritual cultures. It is based on profound wisdom. To these Tibetans, there’s nothing more important than spiritual fulfillment and collecting good karma for the next life.

So now we’ve arrived at Jiegu, capital of Yushu Prefecture.

A must-see here is the Jiegu Monastery. Located on top of a hill to the north, the monastery is famous for its magnificent structure, the number of its celebrated monks and its rich collection of relics. Much of the monastery’s fame is attributed to its first Living Buddha.

If you asked people to choose one location as the unifying point for everyone in this town, it would be right back there. High up above the mountains, overlooking the town and protects every person here, blessing them.

Yushu is one of the most remote areas where Tibetans live. The population is over 90% Tibetan.

The center of the city is the monastery, which come alive with golden statues, adorned with white scarves by respectful worshipers, and colorful paintings of Tibetan deities. Devout worshipers still come and place spoonfuls of vegetable fat in lamps to keep the sacred flames burning. Worshipers still make the traditional, clockwise walk around the temples, spinning their handheld prayer wheels with each step.

Every morning, a lot of the local people, both young and old will come to this place and spin these prayer wheels. They are called so because inside are the scriptures and spinning them clockwise is like reading the prayers. Some choose to spin these as they walk along, others have a hand-held, and yet others bow down on hands and knees and prostrate. Over here, you can find these mani-stones, millions of them all layered up. Each one a blessing. A whole lot of stones.

Just east of Jiegu Monastery, there’s a place that’s considered miraculous – a Mani stone compound. This is the world’s largest collection of hand-carved prayer stones; more than 2 billion of them all told, piled on an area bigger than a football pitch. It was all started by the Living Buddha Jiana. Inscribed on the stones are Buddhist carvings and the six word mantra. The number of stones continues to grow, since pilgrims, having circled the pile reciting scriptures, sometimes add a stone or two. Young and old, pilgrims are to be seen walking around here, every day of the year.

The most exciting time of the year in Yushu is late July. That’s when the Horse racing Festival is held. On the grassland, tents brighten the scene, like stars covering the sky. People come from all over the world to take part in the celebrations. The local nomadic people camp out with their entire families, making the festival a great family gathering. But the highlight of the event is, of course, the racing, and people bring their finest horses.

Hey buddy, what a good boy. Are you going to be in the racing? Take home the championship?

You see, this is a typical family that has been out here. They will be here for about 5 days. Every member has come along, the grandparents, the kids, and the grandchildren. This is my favorite item in the entire tent. This is the most valued item. It’s believed that it’s been passed down from generation to generation, so it’s history can be over 100 years. Gotta be careful. It’s called a prayer wheel, and spun in this manner. Inside are the Buddhist scriptures. Each time you spin it, it’s like reading the scriptures. This proves how devout these people are, doing this all day long.

There are two types of tent, the black yak yarn ones and the white cloth ones. For the horse racing festival, people bring along the summertime white cloth tents. These are smaller, thinner, and more portable. On the outside, they are decorated with auspicious symbols or other religious signs. In fact, these mobile homes have become an art form in their own right.

Besides their mobile homes, there’s something else the Tibetans bring with them; man’s best friend.

The Tibetan mastiff is a real friend. They may look like lovable, dopey, balls of fur, but watch out, because they are easily transformed into some of the fiercest dogs known to man, faithful and utterly fearless. These huge animals, weighing up to 113kg, are used to life in the wild mountains of Tibet, where they were first domesticated 6000 years ago.

See that beast there, that is a pretty big dog. It’s one of the largest breeds. Can I get close to it? Hey, g

ood boy. At the horse racing festival, a lot of Tibetans showcase their pets, like this dog. The temperature of the dog is by nature very aggressive. So although this one is specially trained, the ones over there will probably bite you, so don’t get too close.

These beasts don’t come cheap, either. Top dogs cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

See, the weather here is really cold at night, and early in the morning. And it’s really hot in the afternoon and at noon. That’s why they wear these coats here, and many layers of them. This part is made of wool and is very warm. But it’s pretty hard to put on – and I need some help.

During the festival, the Tibetans dress in their finest. Since they are a nomadic people, they carry their valuables with them – much of it in the form of jewelry or other accessories. Men and women alike wear their hair long and cover themselves in ornaments – made of silver, gold, pearls, and jade. A Khamba woman, in her formal dress, can be wearing jewelry worth several hundred thousand, even a million, yuan.

Yushu in Qinghai is known as the Land of song and dance. Back in the 18th century, the Living Buddha of the Jiegu Monastery created many of the dances. Making your sleeves sway is an important visual part of the dance; the sense of festivity is enhanced by the ringing of the foot bells.

This is the real tibetan dance. The skill is all in the sleeves. They swing it back and forth. The sprit is free, like the envronment.

The horse racing festival is not an exclusive holiday for the Tibetans of Yushu. People come from Gansu, Tibet itself, other parts of Qinghai, Yunnan and Sichuan to take part in the festivities. Though they are all Tibetans, coming from different regions they dress in a rich variety of costumes. But there are common features – the wide waist, long sleeves, long apron and high boots. Also, the men and women are bedecked in jewels and their most prized possessions. They’re not shy about displaying their wealth, it seems.

It’s not only the women who like to show off their moves. Tibetan men are agile dancers – and quite fierce. They incorporate aspects of their daily life into their movements. So, their dancing gives us a hint of the rough, brave nature of Tibetan men, and the free spirited. Tibetans learn to dance as soon as they can toddle, and learn to sing as soon as they can gurgle.

The race starts with religious ceremonies.

Horse racing here dates back more than 500 years. According to Tibetan legend, King Gesar was much admired for his horsemanship. Later, horse racing became a great spectacle, when men showed off their courage. By tradition, Tibetans regard the horse as a symbol of good fortune, courage and intelligence.

By contrast with the excitement of the horse race, the yak race is far more amusing.

And theyre off but they’re not horses. This is the one of the yak, and he’s going. The audience is going crazy. There’s always one guy in the back that’s just rolling along.

Hurry up, man.

So here we are the finish line. So this is where it all happens. So these contestants are 10 or 11 years ago. Horses are getting nervous and excited.

The highlight of the festival is the horse-racing and it’s quite common in Tibetan areas to see young children riding on horseback. They start learning to ride at an early age, and rapidly become quite skilled. Many of the young riders dress in white – the colour that is most holy, representing purity and loyalty.

Qinghai is sparsely populated, but during the horse racing festival, the small town of Yushu is crowded with hordes of people wanting to witness the climax – the singing and dancing, the costume shows, and the horse racing. The festival is 5 days of fun and excitement. It’s a time when Tibetans, in their own unique way, pray to their gods and entertain themselves.

Dotted with black and white tents, the grasslands roll endlessly into the distance. Mingling with the whispering wind are the sounds of racing horse-hooves. There, there’s the figure of a handsome and brave young man. Behind him, is a Tibetan girl, her hair adorned with precious jewels, her face pure and bright. Onward they gallop, to where, nobody knows.

That is Qinghai.


The Tibetans are known for their strong will, sturdy physique, beautiful song and dance, and unique lifestyle – all influenced by Tibetan Buddhism.

The Khamba, a special group of Tibetans residing in Yushu, are reputed as brave, frank, and the most generous of friends.

The Yushu Horse racing festival brings different branches of Tibetans together to celebrate in song and dance, religious gathering, shows, and horse racing.


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